The Boccellato lab uses advanced tissue culture techniques to study the effects of infection on the lining of the gut. The stomach is lined by a layer of epithelial cells that forms a key defensive barrier against infections such as Helicobactor pylori, which can increase the risk of cancer. The lab’s innovative mucosoid cultures mimic the lining of the stomach, importantly including a secreted layer of mucus on the apical surface that enables the study of chronic infection in vitro.
Francesco has recently been awarded funding from Oxford University’s COVID-19 Research Response Fund to assess the ability of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, to infect the epithelial barrier using physiologically relevant in vitro models. Not only will this investigation inform on some reports that the virus can induce gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea indicative of viral infection in the gut, but this approach will also increase the understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 overcomes the epithelial barrier’s defence in the lungs. Culture of the lung epithelium is very limited and so the mucosoid cultures will be a good alternative model for studying some of the key steps in the epithelial innate immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection.